The top US commander for the Middle East slipped quietly into Iraq Tuesday, as the Trump administration works to salvage relations with Iraqi leaders and shut down the government's push for an American troop withdrawal.
Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie became the most senior U.S. military official to visit since an American drone strike in Baghdad killed a top Iranian general, enraging the Iraqis.
McKenzie met with Iraq leaders in Baghdad and then went to see American troops at al Asad Air base, which was bombed by Iran last month in retaliation for the drone attack.
His visit comes amid heightened anti-American sentiment that has fueled violent protests, rocket attacks on the embassy and a vote by the Iraqi parliament pushing for withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country. And it raises questions about whether the appearance of a high-profile U.S. military commander could spur compromise, or simply inflame tensions and scuttle ongoing negotiations to put Patriot missile batteries in Iraq to better protect coalition forces.
Two reporters traveling with McKenzie for the past two weeks around the Middle East did not go with him into Iraq because the stop was added late and they didn't have required visas.
Top U.S. leaders have so far flatly dismissed Iraqi demands for U.S. troops to leave, adopting what appears to be a wait-and-see attitude with the hope that the problems will pass.
Iraqis, however, were furious over the drone strike at Baghdad's international airport on Jan. 3 that targeted and killed Qassem Suleimani, Iran's most powerful general, but also struck down an Iraq general who was with him. The Iraqi, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was the deputy commander of Iran-backed militias known as the Popular Mobilization Forces.
In response to what Iraqi leaders called a breach of sovereignty, Parliament passed a non-binding resolution urging U.S. troop withdrawal.
But after Iran struck back on Jan. 8, launching ballistic missiles at two Iraqi bases where American troops were stationed, the U.S. doubled down and asked to bring the Patriot systems into the country.
There were no Patriots or other air defenses in Iraq capable of shooting down ballistic missiles at the time of the Iranian strike. No forces were killed, but at least 64 have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury.
Thus far, the Iraqis have not approved the request.
"That is one of the matters we have to work on and work through" with the Baghdad government, Defense Secretary Mark Esper told a recent Pentagon news conference. He and Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have made clear that they want Patriots in Iraq to better protect service members there.
The United States has more than 6,000 troops in Iraq to train and advise Iraqi security forces in their fight against extremist groups like the Islamic State and to provide protection for those troops.
Iran said Tuesday that its top court confirmed a death sentence for an Iranian man convicted of spying for the CIA, with state media alleging that he had shared details of the Islamic Republic's nuclear program with the American spy agency.
Judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili identified the purported spy as Amir Rahimpour and said he would be executed soon. Esmaili did not elaborate on what Rahimpour was accused of doing, nor on his age or background.
A report by the state-run IRNA news agency alleged that Rahimpour received money from the CIA to share details of Iran's nuclear program.
"While being in touch with the spy agency, he earned a lot of money as wages as he tried to deliver some information from Iran's nuclear program to the American agency," the IRNA report said. Rahimpour "had been identified and prosecuted and sentenced to death and recently, the country's National Supreme Court confirmed the sentence and, God willing, he will be punished soon."
The CIA declined to comment.
Esmaili said two other alleged spies for the CIA each received 15-year prison sentences — 10 years for spying and five years for acting against national security.
Esmaili did not name those arrested, only saying they worked in the "charitable field," without elaborating.
Iran in the past has sentenced alleged American and Israeli spies to death. The last such spy executed was Shahram Amiri, who defected to the U.S. at the height of Western efforts to thwart Iran's nuclear program. When he returned in 2010, he was welcomed with flowers by government leaders and even went on the Iranian talk-show circuit. Then he mysteriously disappeared.
He was hanged in August 2016, the same week that Tehran executed a group of militants and a year after Iran agreed to a landmark accord to limit uranium enrichment in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.
Tensions remain high between Iran and the U.S. since President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from Tehran's nuclear deal. A U.S. drone strike in January killed Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad, prompting Tehran to retaliate with a ballistic missile strike on Iraqi bases housing American troops.
Before the deal, a computer virus believed to be designed by the U.S. and Israel destroyed Iranian centrifuges. Meanwhile, Iranian nuclear scientists were targeted in a series of assassinations.
Anti-government demonstrators on Sunday rejected Iraq's new prime minister-designate following his nomination by rival government factions, compounding the challenges he'll have to surmount in order to resolve months of civil unrest.
Meanwhile, new divisions emerged among protesters and supporters of a maverick and often inscrutable Shiite cleric, who initially threw his weight behind the uprising but now is re-positioning himself toward the political establishment, after elites selected a candidate for prime minister that he endorsed.
On Sunday, Muqtada al-Sadr told his followers camped out among protesters in the capital and in the country's south to unblock roads and restore normalcy, angering protesters who felt al-Sadr had betrayed them and the reformist aims of their movement for political gain.
Saturday's selection of former Communications Minister Mohammed Allawi, 66, to replace outgoing Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi was the product of months of back-room talks between rival parties, ending a political stalemate.
Hundreds of students voiced their rejection of Allawi at rallies in Baghdad's central plazas and in southern Iraq. Protesters hung portraits of Allawi marked with an "X" on bridges and tunnels around Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the four-month protest movement.
"We don't want Allawi because he is a party member chosen by the parties," said Hadi Safir, a protester in Tahrir. "We want an independent nominee."
Others were more diplomatic, saying they'll wait and see how Allawi delivers on promises to hold early elections.
Iraqi officials said it was likely Allawi would face the same political realities that bedeviled his predecessor, who was often caught between rival political blocs Sairoon, headed by al-Sadr, and Fatah, headed by Hadi al-Ameri.
"He is not known as being tough or outspoken, so some see him as an even more pacified version of Adil Abdul-Mahdi, and will just serve the will of the parties," said one Iraqi official. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.
But Allawi will have to cope with shifting sands of power in the Iraqi arena, with al-Sadr currently gaining the upper hand after showing his dominance over the Iraqi street. The cleric recently staged an anti-U.S. rally that brought tens of thousands to the street. By asking his followers to return to Tahrir Square, al-Sadr gained an advantage in the negotiations for prime minister.
"The groups we call pro-Iranian ... are taking a backseat now as al-Sadr emerges as more active in shaping the new government," said Harith Hasan, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center.
Following the U.S. airstrike in Baghdad that killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, Hasan said "the conviction increased that (Iraq's) military apparatus and militias would be unable to put an end to the protest movement and at the same time secure a new deal for the new prime minister without that help of al-Sadr — that strengthened his position."
Student demonstrations were also held in the southern city of Basra rejecting Allawi's candidacy. Other protesters burned tires in the holy city of Najaf.
"We did not choose this person; we demanded certain qualifications," said Ahmed Ali, a protester in Basra. "Mohammed Allawi is rejected by the people."
Mass anti-government protests erupted on Oct. 1 in Baghdad and the predominately Shiite south. They have decried rampant government corruption, poor services and lack of employment, and came with lofty goals: overthrow the political establishment, pass electoral reforms and hold snap elections. Security forces have killed at least 500 protesters since.
Al-Sadr's followers returned to the demonstration camps on Friday after the cleric reversed his decision to stop supporting the protest movement.
Upon returning, al-Sadr's followers consolidated control of strategic areas in Tahrir Square, including key bridges leading to the fortified Green Zone, the seat of government. Significantly, they also moved into a skeletal high-rise building nicknamed the "Turkish Restaurant," which offers a strategic lookout over the protests.
Militiamen interviewed said they had come to clear the area of "trouble-makers" and drug-users.
"We came here to clean this place up," said one militia member, standing guard outside the building.
Many protesters said al-Sadr's followers had threatened them to toe the cleric's line or leave the square.
"They will never mix with us," said protester Mariam Nael, 18. "We are here for our homeland, they are blindly following the tweet of one cleric."
Former communications minister Mohammed Allawi was named prime minister-designate by rival Iraqi factions Saturday after weeks of political deadlock, three officials said.
The choice comes as the country weathers troubled times including ongoing anti-government protests and the constant threat of being ensnared by festering U.S.-Iran tensions.
The selection of Allawi, 66, to replace outgoing Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi was the product of many back-room talks over months between rival parties.
On Wednesday, President Barham Saleh gave parliamentary blocs until Feb. 1 to select a premier candidate, or said he would exercise his constitutional powers and choose one himself.
In a pre-recorded statement posted online, Allawi called on protesters to continue with their uprising against corruption and said he would quit if the blocs insist on imposing names of ministers.
"If it wasn't for your sacrifices and courage there wouldn't have been any change in the country," he said addressing anti-government protesters. "I have faith in you and ask you to continue with the protests."
Allawi was born in Baghdad and served as communications minister first in 2006 and again between 2010-2012. He resigned from his post after a dispute with former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Parliament is expected to put his candidacy to a vote in the next session, after which point he has 30 days to formulate a government program and select a cabinet of ministers.
According to the constitution, a replacement for Abdul-Mahdi should have been identified 15 days after his resignation in early December. Instead, it has taken rival blocs nearly two months of jockeying to select Allawi as their consensus candidate.
Abdul-Mahdi's rise to power was the product of a provisional alliance between parliament's two main blocs — Sairoon, led by cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and Fatah, which includes leaders associated with the paramilitary Popular Mobilization Units headed by Hadi al-Amiri.
In the May 2018 election, neither coalition won a commanding plurality, which would have enabled it to name the premier, as stipulated by the Iraqi constitution. To avoid political crisis, Sairoon and Fatah forged a precarious union with Abdul-Mahdi as their prime minister.
Until Allawi's selection, al-Sadr had rejected the candidates put forward largely by Fatah, officials and analysts said. Sairoon appears to have agreed to his candidacy following a tumultuous two week after the radical cleric held an anti-U.S. rally attended by tens of thousands and withdrew support for Iraq's mass anti-government protest movement, only to reverse the decision later.
"Sairoon has approved and Fatah has approved," a senior Iraqi official said.
If elected by parliament, Allawi will have to contend with navigating Iraq through brewing regional tensions between Tehran and Washington. Tensions skyrocketed after a U.S. drone strike near Baghdad's airport killed top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and senior Iraqi militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. The tumultuous event brought Iraq close to the brink of war and officials scrambling to contain the fallout.
The presence of U.S. troops on Iraqi soil has become the focus of Iraqi politics in the wake of the strike. Parliament passed a non-binding resolution for their ouster and Abdul-Mahdi had openly supported withdrawal.
Abdul-Mahdi's resignation was precipitated by ongoing mass protests in Baghdad and southern Iraq. Protesters are calling for new executive leadership, snap elections and electoral reforms. They have said they would not accept a candidate chosen by the political establishment.
At the Arab League emergency meeting held on Saturday in Cairo, Arab foreign ministers voiced rejection to the recently released US Middle East peace plan.
"Rejection of the US-Israeli 'Deal of the Century' comes as it does not fulfil the minimum rights and aspirations of the Palestinian people," said the final communiqué issued by the foreign ministers following the meeting.
The statement described as "unfair" the peace deal, announced on Jan. 28 by US President Donald Trump, in the presence of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.